Thanks to a little-known airline hack, traveling around the world could be cheaper than you realize

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traveler iStock/chesterf You can travel to more than a dozen countries.

Many of us share the same gripe when it comes to air travel: It's too expensive.

I'll admit, I had nearly written off the possibility of booking an around the world trip and visiting a handful of countries in one fell swoop for fear that I'd never land on a total airline fare I could stomach.

Then I learned about the Round-the-World (RTW) ticket, a program offered by the major airline alliances that allows travelers to create a custom flight itinerary up to a certain number of stops or miles.

While the total price of a RTW ticket varies based on your destinations (airport taxes and some surcharges apply to specific routes) and flight class, it's cheaper than booking a series of one-way tickets and allows the flexibility to book flights through dozens of different carriers, as well as change dates and destinations on a whim.

If you're interested in circumnavigating the globe with a RTW ticket, here's what you need to know:

What it is

RTW tickets are offered by each of the three big airline networks, Star Alliance , OneWorld , and SkyTeam . A RTW ticket is essentially a loyalty pass with that network, a round-trip ticket valid for 12 months that allows you to craft a custom itinerary with flights on any carrier in the alliance.

The ticket only allows continuous Eastbound or Westbound travel (except within a country) and limits crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to once each. You also must start and end your trip in the same country.

Chris Guillebeau, an entrepreneur, blogger, and bestselling author is well-versed in RTW tickets . He's been on about a dozen RTW trips and tells Business Insider that the country where you begin your journey can greatly impact the overall cost of a ticket.

Star Alliance RTW Star Alliance Star Alliance offers several themed itineraries.

For example, Guillebeau found that a RTW trip leaving from New York City would start at about $3,600 for an economy ticket.

But if you "reposition" your initial flight to a cheaper city like Johannesburg, your fare would start around $1,542 (of course, you'll need to get from home to Johannesburg, but that leg could potentially still be cheaper than starting your entire journey in New York).

RTW tickets can be nuanced, says Guillebeau, and each network has different flight availability and routes, so you may need to shop around to create the exact trip you're dreaming of.

How it works

Each network's RTW program is slightly different in terms of how far a ticket will get you:

  • Star Alliance uses a tier system where the cost of the trip is determined by mileage and flight class . A trip can be up to 39,000 miles in economy, premium economy, business, or first class and must include at least three stopovers (24 hours or more in one place).
  • OneWorld has options for both location-based fare and mileage-based fare , and flight class is also factored into the cost. A trip can either include a minimum of three continents (with up to 16 flight segments) or be up to 39,000 miles.
  • SkyTeam is based on mileage and number of stopovers . A trip can be up to 38,000 miles and include between three and 15 stopovers in economy, business, or first class.

Suppose you buy a OneWorld RTW economy ticket, you'll still pay the same base price whether you book 10 segments or 16 segments. The price will increase based on airport taxes and route surcharges. Airport taxes typically range from $5 at North American airports to $100 at London Heathrow, Guillebeau said.

Booking your trip

Each network offers sample itineraries online, but you'll want to play around with the itinerary booking tool to explore the possibilities afforded by each program.

Below is the booking tool for OneWorld . You can click around to select a flight path that moves either East or West and an itinerary will begin to populate. Your total number of flight segments and mileage are tallied at the bottom of the map.

There's also an option to select any destination as a "surface sector," meaning you're using a different type of transportation between the two cities and won't need to book a flight (it will still count toward your total mileage).

OneWorld also allows two stopovers in your country of origin, but the rules are different for each alliance. That means you could stop at home for a few months (remember, the ticket lasts for a year), and then take a second trip. Guillebeau says he's planned several business trips this way.

RTW explainer OneWorld The OneWorld booking tool is fun and easy to use.

Once you are finished adding your desired stops, you'll move on to the actual booking part of the process.

Here, you'll be prompted to select a departure date for each chosen flight segment. If there are any directional errors or problems with the number of segments selected, you'll be notified before you can get a price quote (you can also save an itinerary and come back to it).

This portion of the booking may require you to get creative, stopping in cities you may not have initially had on your list or pushing some dates around.

RTW explainer OneWorld After you choose your dates and times, flights will be selected for you.

The next page will give you exact flight times and airlines, as well as the total cost. This sample itinerary came out to $6,939 - $5,699 fare, plus $1,240 for taxes and carrier surcharges/fees.

Making changes to your itinerary

While each program requires that you choose your destinations up front, they don't always require that you confirm dates and flight numbers. This is referred to as leaving your ticket "open" and your ability to do this may depend on whether you book online or with an agent over the phone (each alliance has its own policies).

Guillebeau says after setting up his initial flight, he often chooses "placeholder dates" for the rest, because you can make date, time, and carrier changes at no extra charge throughout your trip. With a ticket that lasts 12 months from the time of your first flight, this benefit allows for ultimate flexibility.

If you want to change a destination, you'll incur a $125 fee, but Guillebeau says it's worth it.

Paying with points and rewards

For some credit card mavens, RTW tickets offer a great value for redeeming rewards points.

Pedro Pla and Grace Cheng, the cofounders of credit-card comparison site Get.com , redeemed 960,000 airline miles last fall to buy four business class RTW tickets through Singapore Airlines' frequent flyer program, which is part of the Star Alliance network. Each RTW ticket cost them 240,000 (economy costs 120,000 airline miles), a value of about $13,500, which covered travel to 15 countries.

For more information on RTW tickets, check out Star Alliance , OneWorld , and SkyTeam .

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